Soon I will be travelling to the Mani and will make my first visit to Paddy’s house, something that is rather belated, but an experience that I am looking forward too very much. My friend Ryan Eyre from Seattle has been on a long trip to Europe this summer. Not long after he stayed with me here in Winchester, he travelled to Greece and found himself in historic Mycenae. What he discovered was a virtually moribund tourist industry, and an interesting story about Patrick Leigh Fermor.
By Ryan Eyre
On a recent visit to Mycenae, the Oreia Eleni Hotel seemed the obvious place to stay. The Oreia Eleni, also known as La Belle Helene and the House of Schliemann, is a simple hotel but rich with historical associations. Heinrich Schliemann lived in the building during his excavation work at Mycenae in the 1870s and a generation or more later it was converted into a hotel. Agamemnon Dassis is the current proprietor and is the third-generation of his family to run it. He lives in a house next door with his wife and young daughter. A youthful looking man in his late 40s, Agamemnon is an energetic and quite attentive host.
Mycenae is one of the most visited archaeological sites in Greece but Greece’s economic woes have definitely affected business in the modern village half a mile below the citadel. The number of tourists has declined in recent years and most people who currently visit Mycenae do so as a day-trip and pass through the village without stopping. The owners of the almost empty shops, restaurants and hotels in Mycenae sit rather forlornly, waiting for customers who largely never appear.
I was the only guest at the Oraia Eleni during my two-night stay and Agamemnon told me that I was in fact the first guest they had had in three weeks. This was in July. As a guest, I benefited from being able to talk to Agamemnon at length.
The second day of my stay he showed me the small museum that is on the ground floor of the building. Agamemnon’s father photocopied famous people’s signatures from the guestbook and they are displayed in note-card size form behind glass. He pointed out the signatures of Agatha Christie (I was staying in the same room she supposedly did), Virginia Woolf, Stephen Spender, Carl Jung, Jean-Paul Sartre, Alec Guinness, Charlton Heston and J.K. Rowling (among others) and provided some anecdotal information about each visit. I was interested to note that Albert Speer, Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels and Herman Goering all passed through in the 1930s (it was unclear whether they visited separately or together).
Up to that point Patrick Leigh Fermor’s association with the hotel hadn’t crossed my mind. Thinking about it for a moment it seemed obvious he must have stayed here. I asked Agamemnon whether Leigh Fermor’s signature could be found anywhere on the display. “Oh, yes, I forgot to mention him”, Agamemnon said before pointing out PLF’s name scrawled in his own and dated from 1960.
“He came here many times over the years. He came in the 1950s, and in the 1960s and many times afterwards I remember when I was a young man he telephoned and asked me whether I was George. I said no, I am his son. Who is this? This was in Greek but I could tell from the accent that it was a foreigner. He said, tell George that Michalis from Kardamyli called. I was a little confused. Later I met him. As I said, he came here a number of times. I also visited him in Kardamyli. One time when his wife was in England he came and stayed for a week. He was a great man, a very great man. I last saw him in 1998. When I came back here in 2007 after some years living abroad I did not contact him before he died. I regret this.”
I didn’t immediately tell Agamemnon my own story about meeting Patrick Leigh Fermor in Kardamyli in 2009. That evening at the dinner table and after drinking an ouzo and some wine, I asked him to sit with me because I wanted to tell him something. I began to recount my last trip to Greece when I had gone to the Mani to try to meet the author, who was then 94 years old.
“You met him in the end?” Agamemnon asked before I could go on much further. I told him I had written PLF a brief letter that I had dropped off at his house and ended up being invited to lunch the next day, where I spent several hours drinking, eating and talking with the great man.
I acknowledged I was extremely lucky. Agamemnon agreed and opened up more. He told me about how Paddy would come to Mycenae and disappear for the entire day, only returning at night. Paddy didn’t tell people he was a famous writer; Agamemnon only discovered this on his own.
Paddy was pretty self-deprecating and didn’t take himself so seriously. He was happy to talk to all sorts of people and showed genuine curiosity in their lives. “He had this constant curiosity about people and the world. That’s why he lived so long,” Agamemnon remarked.
He told me about various friends of Paddy’s who have stayed at the Oraia Eleni and that the Patrick Leigh Fermor Society had also passed through in the last two years.
Moving into more salacious territory, he then told me that he was going to tell me something about Paddy that most people haven’t heard. He didn’t have the heart to tell the members of the PLF Society when they visited. Agamemnon asked me to keep it off the record so I can’t fully disclose what I heard. What I will say is that it was an anecdote that I have very reason to believe is true and confirms that well into his 70s Paddy was sexually active with women who were not his wife and were considerably younger than himself. Agamemnon and I agreed that Paddy’s mixture of looks, charm and erudition was remarkable. “He really had the mentality of a teenager,” Agamemnon added.
Drinking wine and hearing these stories as the only guest in an atmospheric place gave me the thrilling feeling of luck and leventia, or feeling of lightness, that Paddy would refer to in connection with Greece. It was an evening that reminded me why I travel.